There is a rule in ecology called the maximum power principle formulated by Lokta in 1925. It can be summarized as follows: “The systems that survive in competition are those that develop more power inflow and use it best to meet the needs of survival.” If one wanted to describe the animating force behind the rise and fall of civilizations, they would be hard pressed to come up with a better one. Complex systems — such as our modern industrial world economy — appear to be ruled by the same ecological principles to which all other complex organisms obey. These rules are so universal, independent from size and scale from microbes to galaxies, that one would do better to call them natural laws. Join me on a wild ride from bacteria to petroleum extraction to see how these rules govern our daily life and how they could eventually lead to the decline of what we call modernity.
Imagine a clean Petri-dish chuck full of yummy Agar Agar, a medium utilized to grow fungi and bacteria on. Now place a range of microorganisms on it and see what happens: those bacteria which use up the most food energy to multiply will simply outcompete almost any other life form in the dish. Those who use energy sparingly, and live a slow but long life with relatively few offspring, will be simply outcrowded and completely overwhelmed. Now, let’s take our thought experiment to the next level: take a clean Petri-dish, but this time fill half of it with tasty bacteria food and the another half with a not-so-yummy medium with a much lower energy content. Next, add some bacteria which double their numbers every hour. What you can expect to see here is exponential growth at its best — and something unexpected.
In this mixed medium environment, obeying the maximum power principle, our little friends would start eating the best food source first while keenly avoiding the less tasty areas. Why? Because fission takes a lot of energy and nutrients to perform. No energy, no multiplication. Soon enough, the high energy Agar Agar will be overrun and eaten first, while the less attractive stuff would remain scarcely inhabited.
Now let’s say that our Petri dish can hold up to 16 billion of our pet bacteria before running out of physical space. What would be the population number just an hour before that threshold is reached? Yes, 8 billion. If these bacteria could think and communicate complex ideas on their social media platforms, they would say to one another at this point: ‘Folks, life never been better: we are enjoying the best Agar Agar one could find and still have plenty of room to grow. Look, half of the dish is still empty!’
Poor bastards. They apparently haven’t realized that their last doubling, due within an hour, would consume all the space in the dish… Even worse, it would have to be performed by eating low calorie junk: i.e. it ain’t gonna happen. As soon as they would start to run low on tasty Agar Agar, they would soon find out that life can become pretty hard pretty fast once they had to rely on a low quality energy source. What happens next, though, is neither sudden death, nor an exuberant party, but something entirely different.
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Let’s put our little bacterial fellas in a Petri dish aside for a moment, and zoom out a little to repeat the same experiment in a dish the size of planet Earth. Replace Agar Agar with conventional, cheap to drill, high quality oil, and the low calorie medium with all sorts of unconventional sources of petroleum from shale, deep water, tar sands or ultra heavy goo from Venezuela. Let’s say we have burned half all of Earth’s oil accessible to humans, with the other (unconventional) half being still available. This latter half though, despite looking just as good as any previous oil, yields much less (if any) net energy after all the energy was spent on recovering it.
It’s also important to note here, that exponential growth consumes just as much energy, materials and space in each doubling as all the prior expansions did together from the get go. So if we accept that the consumption of a resource is doubling every 30 years, then we can be expected to use up as much of the said resource in the next three decades as we did since the dawn of civilization. A thing to ponder on… What we, and by the way our pet bacteria, experience in such a situation is a switch from feckless exponential growth to a much lower rate of expansion, accompanied with an ever more efficient use of the priceless master resource.
Welcome to stage two of the maximum power principle, the taper-off phase. This is the beauty of complex adaptive systems: they don’t drive full speed into the wall — as soon as stressors arise they try to adapt. As all of the energy flow gets assigned to certain species or use case, the only way to keep growth up is to utilize any given share of the energy flow the most efficiently — or take it from others. What we are seeing ever since the 1970's — the peak of conventional oil extraction in the US, the most developed economy of the world back then — is exactly that: a switch to an ever more efficient use of petroleum, the master resource.
Ever higher fuel efficiency standards, less and less oil burned in furnaces or used to generate electricity were the low hanging fruits. It did not stop growth in oil consumption though, the race to consume the most energy on the planet kept going. However, if conventional oil could peak in a country, then you can be sure as hell that it will peak globally as well — especially considering exponential growth driven by the maximum power principle. And so it did in 2005, kicking a price rally and a frantic search for more oil into motion. Ever since that date basically all new sources of oil came from shale plays, tar sands and deepwater drilling — exactly those sorts of places where you would have to expend an ever increasing amount of energy to get the same amount of oil back. Now even these much touted saivors of modernity has entered their taper-off phase, manifesting in an unsustainable attempt to squeeze more oil from existing wells, or mergers and acquisitions aimed at upholding profitability, before decline finally sets in.
In this sense — although touted for their “environmental benefits” — low carbon energy is also nothing more than a last ditch effort to make fossil fuels last just a little bit longer. Since nuclear, wind and solar still hopelessly depend on oil, coal and gas in every step of their lifecycle, these new “sources” of energy are nothing but a more efficient conversion of fossil fuels into electricity. As soon as overall energy production from fossil fuels will start to taper off during the coming decades, you can bet on a decline in new renewable electricity as well.
This is what I call ‘hitting a rubber ceiling’: an organisms attempt made at upholding growth at all costs, pushing out the boundaries of consumption against an ever stronger force pulling it back like a rubber band. There can be only one outcome to this struggle though, and no, that is not the rubber snapping. Paraphrasing an exchange on X, the wrestle can be summarized as follows:
“When it comes to energy, in the war between platitudes and physics, physics is undefeated. When it comes to policy, it’s often the opposite.”
Sarcastic quotes aside, even the best intended attempts made at optimizing / maximizing energy use invariably end up hitting all sorts of diminishing returns. Efficiency gains by engineering means encounter all sorts of physical and economic limits. Wars waged over who controls the flow of energy become to numerous to fight simultaneously while yielding less and less gains. Instead of the rubber ceiling snapping, the organism attempting infinite growth on a finite resource base — be it bacteria in a Petri dish, an empire built on colonization or a globalized industrial civilization — bounces back and well… Collapses.
Collapse, however, is rarely an instantaneous event. It starts slowly by eating away the foundations, then accelerates as the basis of an organism’s existence falls into ruins. In ecology this is called the ‘Release’ phase of the adaptive cycle, where both connectedness and potential falls, reducing complexity to the bare minimum. This is what has happened to all prior civilizations and empires, and this is what awaits our modern way of life too. Sorry, no energy, no economy… And certainly no complex governance structures or shining cities.
Release is not all doom and gloom either. While terrible things might happen in a relative quick succession from war to famines and the disintegration of social structures, collapse also comes with a wide range of opportunities and a huge demand to build things anew. All the material and energy previously tied up in complex structures will be available to experiment and work with. This will be the moment for long suppressed ideas to emerge, coming up with appropriate low-tech solutions, starting community farming and a sharing economy at scale. Yes, it will be a rough ride, and unfortunately a very short one for way too many people, but when it comes, being prepared will prove to be much better than being shocked.
“Precarious living is always an adventure.”
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
In 2019, I argue, we have entered the ever accelerating phase of collapse — a precarious age of constant flux. Growth in per capita consumption of energy and goods has stopped, and despite all measures made at saving on expenses, a silent contraction began. And while the top 1% could still grow its wealth, the same could not be told about the bottom 90%, who have experienced a marked decline in their standards of living — especially in the past two years. We have clearly passed multiple tipping points, marking an end to the unstable equilibrium of the 2000’s.
Welcome to the collapse of modernity.
As a response to these changes a salvage economy has already started to emerge. Something which could very well become a global phenomenon in this ever more precarious environment. As we see more and more countries de-industrialize, residents will be forced to make a living on whatever wreckage has been left behind. To illustrate how this is already a reality — something unfathomable for many in the well-to-do class — just read The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing.
Not so far out into the future I can easily imagine caravans traversing vast continents carrying printed circuit boards, water pumps or medical equipment and medicine, mimicking trading traditions of the distant past. (Just like what we have seen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens on planet Jakku, where residents traded still functioning machine parts for food.) I can see people upcycling the remnants of an industrial civilization: repurposing car generators as wind turbines, or a series of large water jugs as hanging gardens, or parking lots as a way to grow food close by. Present day examples are aplenty, from Havana to South-East Asia.
The ecotechnic future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed.
Collapse is rarely an evenly spread out event. It happens at different times in different places in a patchy, uneven way. Some have already experienced it — like people in Lebanon or Libya — somewhere else it is currently unfolding, while in some lucky communities it still looks unimaginable. As the collapse of modern industrial civilization unfolds under the many pressures of the polycrisis (a multitude of seemingly unrelated events and trends from climate change to resource depletion), everyone will experience what the loss of modernity and promise of progress means.
It’s very important to highlight, that while the future is ripe with uncertainty, collapse is not something we can choose to avoid. Without a dense, cheap, portable and storable energy source as oil, and the cornucopia of food and minerals it made available, modernity simply cannot last. Especially not when one considers the ecocide these past 200 years have brought about. It’s pointless to blame anyone, any organization or country for this, the natural law of the maximum power principle gives ample explanation why this is happening to us. Those entities who used up all the energy they could the fastest way imaginable always won over those who did not follow suit. Think: settlers taking the land of indigenous people. Empires fighting wars for dominance. Frugality and restraint was a luxury reserved for nations with like-minded neighbors — and frankly not much have been left of those.
No growth, no matter how you wish, can last forever. It neither did for the Mesopotamians or the Romans, nor the Mayans. All expansionist civilizations went down in history, and ours is no exception by any means. Some generations just happen to draw a short straw and experience contraction, as it happened many times before, but its neither their, nor their ancestors’ fault. Civilizations follow their own logic dictated by their metabolic demands and survival instinct in a race for more energy and resources. Collapse thus becomes a feature of life, an outcome, not a problem to be solved. From bacteria to galaxies (2) every organism in the Universe obeys the laws of Nature. Maximizing the flow of power, then collapsing as it runs out, seems to be just one of those.
Until next time,
Notes: In case you were left wandering what does this has to do with galaxies, and why ecology is inseparable from the laws of physics, I recommend French astronomer Francois Roddier’s work, titled: The Thermodynamics of Evolution. Truly a must read for the scientifically inclined. For those of my readers, who are rather interested in the economic aspects of system dynamics I suggest The Origin of Wealth from Eric D. Beinhocker.
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